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Powerful Living


Coal: I


By Anna Politano


f you have watched someone juggle, you know it takes focus, fl exibility, and an abil- ity to maintain balance. Ask any juggler: more often than not, their secret is to es- tablish a thought-out strategy for a successful outcome. In their case, a captive audience. It’s no different with your electric coopera-


tive. Your co-op has to weigh several factors and maintain a lot of open options to keep your lights on. Having a diverse generation portfolio is at the core of their “juggling” business. For decades, the fuel source used as the foun- dation to generate your electricity has been coal: a black, sedentary rock, which is the cause of much controversy and heated discussion lately. For the purpose of this article, however, OKL wants to provide an informative overview on why coal is used to generate the power you, your family, and your local community enjoy each day.


Looking at the Big Picture Coal is a time-tested fuel source. It’s been used to generate electric power since the 1880s. Fast forward more than a century to 2012, and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported United States’ coal mines produced more than a billion short tons of coal; more than 81 percent of this coal was used by U.S. power plants to generate electricity. Nationwide, coal accounts for nearly 60 percent of electric co-op power supply needs annually. Of the 600 plants that have coal-fi red units across the country, the co-op industry claims 62 coal-fi red power plants owned by generation and transmission (G&T) cooperatives; together, they comprise over 9 percent of the U.S. coal-based electricity production. In Oklahoma, Anadarko- based G&T Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) serves 18 member and one non-member distribution electric cooperatives, four member cooperatives in New Mexico and the Altus Air Force Base. According to WFEC Vice President of


Generation Gary Gilleland, coal accounted for 33 percent of the co-op’s generation in 2013. On a national level, EIA reported coal was used for about 37 percent of the 4 trillion kilowatt-hours


Western Farmers Electric Cooperative coal-fi red generation plant in Hugo, Okla., has a total generation capacity of 450 megawatt-hours. Photo by Mark Daugherty/WFEC


a vital fuel for your electric power Why electric cooperatives use coal to generate electricity


of electricity generated in 2012. According to the U.S. Department of Energy


(DOE), coal is the United States’ most abundant fossil fuel. The United States has more coal than the rest of the world has oil. But, like other fuels, coal is not perfect. Trapped inside coal are impu- rities like sulfur and nitrogen, not to mention that coal is formed out of carbon. When burned, carbon is combined with oxygen in the air, form- ing carbon dioxide—a colorless, odorless gas. This chemical compound, CO2, when in the atmosphere, is identifi ed as one of several gases that can trap the earth’s heat. However, DOE reports there are new technologies that cut back on the release of carbon dioxide by burning coal more effi ciently; they are called “clean coal tech- nologies.” While the advancement of these tech- nologies is encouraging, several of them are not yet commercially available. There are, however, several types of coal, and some are better suited for generating electricity.


Commitment to Cleaner Coal WFEC’s coal-fi red plant in Hugo, Okla., was built in 1981 to meet the power supply needs of its member electric cooperatives. According to Plant Manager David Sonntag, the plant was designed from day one to burn low-sulfur coal. WFEC owns three 100 car train sets that travel continuously from Oklahoma to Wyoming where it sources coal from the Powder River Basin, a geologic basin known for its coal de- posits. The “PRB” coal, to which Sonntag re- ferred, is a sub-bituminous coal, low in sulfur. Coal deliveries to the Hugo Plant come in ev- ery two and a half to three days. WFEC main- tains 45 to 70 days’ coal supply on the ground at any given time. This ability to store coal at the site minimizes supply disruptions that might otherwise occur with coal and that some- times do occur with natural gas at times of high use. The coal-fi red plant serves as WFEC’s basel- oad unit. You may be wondering: what’s “base- load?” A baseload unit is normally operated to take all or part of the minimum continuous load for a utility’s power needs, and it conse- quently produces electricity at a constant rate. For WFEC, this unit is available nearly 99 per- cent of the time, unless it’s offl ine for sched- uled maintenance or planned outages, which generally take place during non-peak-demand months, such as in the spring and/or fall. Although coal is not the cleanest fuel to burn,


the technologies used to control emissions have advanced signifi cantly over the years. According to DOE, in the last 20 years, researchers have developed ways to capture the pollutants trapped in coal before impurities can escape into the at- mosphere. Today, technology is available to fi lter 99 percent of coal’s tiny particles and remove more than 95 percent of acid rain pollutants. Nationally, electric cooperatives have invested billions of dollars to reduce and control coal- fi red emissions. To WFEC, that means using an electrostatic precipitator to remove fl y ash and reduce particu- late matter. WFEC also employs low nitrogen oxide burners to stage combustion and reduce acid rain effects. Sonntag explained WFEC goes through rigorous inspections by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality each year.


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